Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

tattooed women & liminal spaces ~

imageI ‘got inked’ with my younger son when I was in Portland last month. He asked, and I was charmed. I already have one tattoo — a small Chinese character for ‘ink,’ almost unnoticeable on my inside right ankle.

This one is NOT unnoticeable. Friends vary in their reactions. Some were horrified (truly — you can tell). Others (particularly old friends & family) were accepting; they’ve known me to do far weirder things. I’m lucky to have the best of husbands — he said my dragon was beautiful. I think so too.


I’m year of the dragon, which by most Asian standards is a great thing to be. And the dragon seems to me the perfect symbol for the changes I’ve been going through.

The tattoo had been in the back of my head for a long time. In Chinese, Việtnamese, and Thai mythologies, the dragon is ancient & wise. The old I can vouch for feeling these days; the wise I hope to grow into. Dragons in Western mythologies are there primarily, it always seemed to me, to serve as proving grounds for homicidal knights. And/or to devour nubile maidens. But I’ve (obviously) never seen them that way.image


As a child, I went w/ my family every Tết to the annual dragon dance, known sometimes as the lion dance. My mother told me I too was a dragon (I think I’ve known this since was no older than 9). So I never rooted for the ‘heroes’ who slayed the poor dragon. I always rooted for the dragon.

Later, the dragon became a kind of talisman for me. Fearless, winged, wise and just. It’s what I’d like to be. Still. :)

Once, years ago, a man on the bus saw my small ‘ink’ tattoo and said I didn’t seem like the kind of woman who would get a tattoo. Hmmmm. Just what kind of woman DOES get a tattoo, Tom? And what kind of woman do you think I am? The conversation went downhill pretty quickly ~


Because poets are EXACTLY the kind of people to make metaphors concrete, tangible. I wanted ‘ink’ in my blood, hence my first tattoo so many years ago, while I was working hard to perfect my craft. Now? I want to go forward into these next years with wings. I want to fight for what’s right, and be able to tell the difference between attachment and justice. So my dragon is a doorway into that next place, a threshold space, if you will. A liminal space where beginner’s heart can continue growing.

imageIt’s also art. Body art, yes, but I think it’s beautiful. I like the colours (each of which I discussed ad infinitum nauseaum w/ Sean, at Infinity Tattoo in Portland. And art — whether with a big A or a small a — is good, as Sean says. Always. :)


I don’t think everyone gets a tattoo for the same reasons I have. But then, how many retired college professors have sons who want to go get tattooed together? And a fixation on dragons…? :)



my own sangha ~

I don’t have a true sangha — that community of Buddhist believers who  journey with you along your spiritual path. I have fellow travelers, certainly, and I’d like to think my approach to belief is eclectic enough that my ersatz sangha is pretty ecumenical.

My cousin Sally, a born-Methodist who converted to Judaism for her ex; my friend Pat, a devout Christian; my sisters — one a devout Christian, one an atheist, the third a pagan Buddhist; my sons — one an agnostic, one a Wiccan; my wonderful husband, whose spiritual breadth & depth defy easy classification… And the many men & women (Hindu, Muslim, Unitarian, Jewish…) whose own paths twine through mine like moonflower vine — brightly shining in the darkness. moonflower vine


Moonflower is an amazing flower — it blooms in the evening, on through the night. Luminously fragrant, bats & moths love it. If you plant a night garden — full of white flowers, and silver-leaved plants to shine softly after dusk — it’s a must.

My sangha — at least what serves me as one — is full of moonflower friends. Sometimes not visible in the happy daytime hours, but always there when it’s darkest. I love that metaphor (surprise), as it seems easy to me to be there to celebrate good times. I’d like to be the friend who manages to listen (not my strongest asset!), and helps you heal. Healing is kind of like moonflower’s night fragrance, I think. Not there in the bright times, but in the darkness.


Now that I’ve beat that metaphor to death… :)

Holocaust Selection_Birkenau_ramp

“Selektion” on the Judenrampe, Auschwitz, May/June 1944. To be sent to the right meant slave labor; to the left, the gas chamber. This image shows the arrival of Hungarian Jews from Carpatho-Ruthenia, many of them from the Berehov ghetto. The photographer was Ernst Hofmann or Bernhard Walter of the SS. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.


More seriously? This blog is as much a sangha as any. Writing what it means to search for beginner’s heart, how hard it is to keep sight of that in the middle of politics, racism, social injustice… I don’t know that any community could be more helpful.

This is one of those moments in my life when my faith in people isn’t as strong as usual. Normally, I feel like most folks are okay. But lately, in the wake of Buddhists killing Muslims, and Muslims killing each other, and whites declaring open season on difference…? It’s hard.

Once, many years ago, I hit a comparable spiritual impasse. There were three murders close to me — no one I knew well, but the aunt of my son’s best friend, the dear friend of a sister-in-law, and a stranger I never met. It was too much for me. I went to a dear mentor — a brilliant Sho’ah scholar — who had studied the impact of the Holocaust through history. I asked him how he managed to look at the horrible things people did to each other, often in the name of God. And because my beliefs call me to compassion — if not love — I asked him how to love these murderers. A question I face once again.


Hank, that wise and gentle friend, told me, It’s not your job to love them, Britton. It’s God’s job. You can’t hate them, but you don’t have to love them. They turned their faces from God. God did not turn away from them.

I can’t tell you how that healed me. I only have to work on my compassion — hard enough! To have compassion for people who believe that guns solve anything? To have compassion for racists and murderers and rapists and men (& women) who want to relegate women to child-bearing machines? To have compassion for people who refuse to feel any for hungry children, veterans, elderly? This is difficult enough.

I don’t have to love the people who break my heart. That’s not my job. I just have to learn compassion. Thankfully, I have this amazing  sangha to help me.


simplify ~

list pictureA friend posted the following on her FaceBook page, and I’m shamelessly stealing. The list comes from ZenHabits, and is longer in its original. Worth a stop by.

9 Rules for a Simpler Day

1. Know What’s Important. Take time to identify the most important things in your life (4-5 things), and then see what activities, tasks, projects, meeting and commitments fit in with that list.
2. Visualize Your Perfect Day. Understand what a simple day means to you. It’s different for each person. Take a minute to visualize what it means to you.
3. Say No to Extra Commitments. List and evaluate your commitments (professional, civic and personal), and say No to at least one. It just takes a call or email.
4. Limit Tasks. Each morning, list your 1-3 most important tasks. Limiting your tasks helps you focus, and acknowledges you’re not going to get everything done in one day.
5. Carve Out Un-distraction Time. When are you going to do your most important work? Make this your most sacred appointment.
6. Slow Down. Life won’t collapse if you aren’t rushing from task to task, email to email. You can pause, take a moment to reflect, smile, enjoy the current task before moving on.
7. Mindfully Single-task.. Practice mindfulness as you do the task — it’s a form of meditation.
8. Batch Smaller Tasks, Then Let go. Don’t let the small tasks get in the way of the big ones. When you’ve done a batch of small tasks (including processing email), let them go, and get out.
9. Create Space Between. The space between things is just as important as the things themselves. Enjoy the space.


I don’t do enough of any of these! :) I forget about mindfulness when I’m washing the dishes. I can remember when I’m watering the plants (welllll, sometimes…), but almost never when I’m doing the laundry. And it’s hard when I’m making the bed.negative space

Sometimes, when I do tasks, I try to do them the old ‘macrobiotic’ way: thinking of the people for whom I do them, and infusing the tasks w/ love. That works, again, when I remember. Which I do FAR too seldom! :)


And I almost never remember to limit tasks. I wear myself out filling the morning, then whine because my blasted Achilles tendon is hurting. Duh! I didn’t ice it, like the doc scolded me.

But the one I’m going to focus on for now? #9: create space between. That so appeals to my inner poet — what isn’t done/ said is as important — sometimes even more so — than what is. Negative space, grasshopper. What makes the graphics of life…



what’s wrong w/ the Martin/Zimmerman ‘trial’ ~

no killingIt’s not okay to kill people. Ever. It’s sometimes necessary, but it’s never okay. We grieve — even when execution is, as the Dalai Lama said about the death of bin Laden, the only way to avoid more deaths. We don’t punish through death, or at least we shouldn’t (as so-called ‘civilised’ people). Hence my anti-death penalty stance. You aren’t ‘pro-life’ if you embrace death. It’s (literally) impossible.

My husband asked me today why this trial has generated sooo much controversy, discussion, vitriol. I responded — and I believe — that George Zimmerman is a very typical American. So, unfortunately, is Trayvon Martin. And this trial — this murder, in my eyes — is symptomatic of a deep wound in America, that has become (as wounds can) an ongoing fester. Racial hatred and a passion for vigilante justice infect this country, and have since our inception.


We built this country, much as whites don’t want to recognise it, on the bodies of Indians. With the slave labour of Asians (primarily Chinese, on the railroads — another deep wound we don’t acknowledge) and Africans. Both treated as chattel — which rhymes, both technically & metaphorically — with cattle. In fact, we treated our cattle better, quite often.

Because American history texts are written mostly by whites, few Americans get the story of the conquest of the Americans, the church-sanctioned genocide, and the churches’ involvement with the African slave trade. But as early as the Conquistadors, the Catholic Church put its imprimateur on the taking of slaves, and the mass murder of innocents.


I’m not okay with this. Not even now, two millennia later. say no to racismBut if you grew up in many churches in the US, that kind of race-based supremacy is still alive. Witness Bob Jones University, for instance, where interracial dating was forbidden as recently as 13 years ago (the year 2000). All under the guise of Christianity.

And how many times has America watched John Wayne take the reins of justice into his own hands? It’s an ‘honourable’ tradition, accounting for some of our worst historic moments. Think of raids on Indian villages, lynching squads, posses….


That’s George Zimmerman’s history — the legacy which he represents.

And here’s the clincher for me: if Zimmerman had lived up to his job description (neighbourhood WATCH??), and followed the explicit caution of the police when he called (‘watch’), nothing would have happened. Period.

The whole thing is a sad commentary on just how fragmented this country is, that Americans would prefer to believe every black male in a hoodie is evil, requiring us to bear arms against our neighbours, than that we can talk out our problems.

And yes. I’m an idealistic Buddhist. But I still have hope that somehow, black white and brown will sit down at a table. And talk. And maybe even visit. And that this verdict doesn’t really mean open season on people who don’t look like you…








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